The Age. November 1, 2003
Ballard of an indignant man
J.G. Ballard lives in a comfortable London suburb, but there's nothing cosy about his fiction. He tells Zulfikar Abbany why he still enjoys stirring the pot.
'It's pretty difficult to get peoples' backs up these days. We're so... anesthetised." He may laugh, but it's a serious consideration for the 73-year-old British author, J.G. (James Graham) Ballard. Since his entry into the world of fiction, particularly science-fiction, in the late 1950s, Ballard has got plenty of backs up.
In 1970, The Atrocity Exhibition was pulped by his American publishers because it included stories such as Why I Want to F**k Ronald Reagan and a vision of Hollywood moving into the White House. A few years later, his publisher's reader warned that Ballard was "beyond psychiatric help", having perused the manuscript of what was to become one of Ballard's best-known novels and the epitome of auto-erotic fiction, the disturbing Crash. A "psychopathic hymn" in Ballard's own words, Crash explored a sinister union of sex and violence in auto-atrocities at a time when few were ready for it.
Wider acceptance came with Empire of the Sun, which was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. But when David Cronenberg adapted Crash for cinemas in 1996, Ballard was at it again. "At Cannes I appeared at a press conference, the press conference from which Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard marched out in indignation. S-s-silly man. He called for the film to be banned. Can you imagine a film critic calling for a film to be baaaanned? Ah, for heaven's sake."
You can tell Ballard enjoys testing other peoples' nerves, but this response to Cronenberg's Crash still seems to bother him. The publication of his latest novel, Millennium People, may not have got backs up, but it certainly got the editors at the left-leaning London weekly The New Statesman to sit up straight and take note. The cover of a recent issue read: "Coming soon - the new poor." Below the headline a set of moneyed middle-class women were seen sharing a table (but not their wine) with four working-class men. The image, although it advertised an article on so-called first-world debt, was not far removed from Ballard's own sentiment: the middle class is the new proletariat.
"There is a lot of dissatisfaction among the middle classes today in England, the salaried middle class - doctors, solicitors, middle managers, civil servants, academics, teachers - that their salaries have not kept pace with inflation, that they are over-taxed. They have lost a lot of the status they once had, they've lost their job security and the kind of core beliefs that have always sustained the middle class: a sense of civic responsibility, the importance of education. Education is more and more perceived as a sort of con. It deludes the middle class into thinking that they have some sort of special skill. It doesn't guarantee anything. An arts degree is like a diploma in origami. And about as much use."
Ballard sees it first hand. Apparently, his daughters work just to be able to pay for the nanny that allows them to go to work. "You get middle-class people together," says Ballard, "and their conversation is dominated by finding schools and thinking about private health care, housing." Or having to pay to park outside one's own home. "So there's this huge dissatisfaction and it could reveal itself in civil unrest. It could happen. (The middle classes) are the keel and anchor of society. Once their sense of civic responsibility is discarded, everything will collapse, literally. Water won't run through the taps."
Six years ago Ballard wrote that it was the class system that "preserves England from revolution". Something must have changed. Now he says: "I think the class system has begun to break down. We're in a time of major changes. The huge range of protest movements that we see - they are the millennium people because they're shouldering the burden of protest. They're aware that something is deeply wrong and that something needs to be done about it."
Millennium People has perhaps inadvertently become the third in a trilogy of perverse murder-mysteries, following Ballard's last two novels, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. The narrator of Millennium People, David Markham, stumbles on a group of bourgeois revolutionaries, the residents of an inner-city housing development, Chelsea Marina. An industrial psychologist, Markham is seduced by the group's flawed, psychopathic members, whom he believes might lead him to the people responsible for a bomb explosion at Heathrow Airport in which his ex-wife was killed.
One of the group's leaders, a film-studies lecturer called Kay Churchill, who has been banned for encouraging her students to make pornographic films, takes Markham to the middle-class stronghold of Twickenham in suburban London. There, Markham observes Kay as she asks the locals whether they would consider buying spray-on mud, or having sex with a dog. From this relatively harmless prank, the Chelsea Marina militants pull off more lethal attacks on the Tate Gallery and the National Film Theatre in London - the two targets being emporiums of "cultural delusions".
Ballard has lived in another of London's middle-class strongholds, Shepperton, for almost 40 years. His is the house that stands out from the rest - because it is the only one in need of a paint job. The front garden is unkempt and his silver Ford Granada has a flat tyre. But you get the feeling that if Kay Churchill were to come by, Ballard would be the only resident of Shepperton to invite her in for a cup of tea or glass of whisky.
And so he stands in the doorway, welcoming and generous: "Ah, the Melbourne Age! Do come in." He extends a hand and, once inside, shuts the door again on this sedate satellite on London's commuter belt. Shepperton may provide Ballard with one of the oddest views on the world, but a perfect spot for him to say "the most outrageous things".
But Richard Gould, the originator of the Chelsea Marina revolt and ostracised pediatrician, is bent on a more radical approach: the more meaningless the target the better. "Meaningless outrages," says Ballard, "attract more attention and unsettle people more. If you're against globalisation, it doesn't achieve much by sort of bombing the head offices of Shell or Nestle. You unsettle people much more by blowing up an Oxfam shop because people can't understand the motive."
But the notion runs deeper than that. There is a brief but significant moment when Markham becomes sexually excited by the violence around him. Ballard has long confronted concepts of acceptable sexual behaviour (just read Crash), as prescribed by agony aunts and consultant psychologists on TV. But much more than this, Ballard has a far nastier phenomenon in mind, what he calls an untapped reservoir of human psychopathology.
"Desperate people - and the middle classes are now desperate, or may soon become desperate - will seek desperate remedies, and desperate remedies to a certain kind of mind have an appeal all their own. It may be that sex is triggered by, or should be - it's possible - by strains of violence that are definitely in our make-up.
"These last three books have all been looking at human psychopathology, which has been fenced off very carefully by all the civilising forces that make up our lives today. This reservoir may appear more and more attractive to all sorts of agencies, from political parties to commercial concerns to religious groups to criminals to philosophers. I mean, this has happened before in history many times. The last occasion was, of course, the German Nazi party, which openly tapped psychopathic strains in human nature to create a vast sadistic ideology."
The Second World War left its mark on Ballard in a big way. Born in Shanghai, Jim Ballard and his family were detained in a civilian prison camp following the attack on Pearl Harbour. The experience formed the basis of his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun. It has been suggested that it is because of that dark period of childhood detention that Ballard continues to envision dsytopias in his work, highly controlled, gated-communities where the inhabitants run wild despite themselves.
"In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom, and the more civilised we are, the more ruled by reason, the greater the unconscious need for some sort of irrational outbreak grows within us. But the fathers of the Enlightenment never accepted that," he says in agreement with philosopher John Gray, whose recent book Straw Dogs Ballard greatly admires.
"The Enlightenment view of mankind is a complete myth. It leads us into thinking we're sane and rational creatures most of the time, and we're not."
Ballard tends not to read much fiction these days. Nonetheless, he says the British novelist Will Self is a "phenomenal character", and he still considers Naked Lunch author William Burroughs the most important writer in the English language since the war.
"It's quite possible to be a thoroughly disreputable and objectionable painter, novelist, composer and produce great works of art. Wagner did it. T.S. Elliot was racist in a rather mean and nasty way. Burroughs had a lot of really rather psychopathic ideas -- I knew him. A brilliant writer. But, you know, a moral degenerate in many ways."
Returning to England with his family in 1946, Ballard's interest in psychology led him into medicine, which he read at Cambridge for two years. He has said that had he not become a writer he might well have become like the moral degenerates within his own work. But which? A David Markham or a Richard Gould?
"Who knows? One hovers somewhere in between. Because I've always tried to be honest about the unconscious impulses that have driven my fiction. That's why in Crash, which is in some respects an openly psychopathic novel, I introduced myself by my own name as the narrator. I wanted to lay my cards face up on the table, not hide behind some invented name. In all of us there are elements of contradictory, sometimes rather unwelcome ghosts, doubles of ourselves."
Ballard speaks of retirement, but the idea that one of the most important contemporary writers should simply stop is far more preposterous than any of his novels may seem. And yet, when he says that he sees "the planet enduring a future of stultifying boredom, interrupted by acts of random violence", you can almost see those backs getting up. To which Ballard adds: "Good! Who?! I'll send them a free copy!"